Review: Michael Charry's 'George Szell: A Life of Music'

Neglected volume charts life and times of legendary conductor. Photo: Szell website

WASHINGTON, August 2, 2013 – Sometimes a good book comes to one’s attention via the backdoor, months and sometimes years after it’s first published. And so it was for this reviewer with regard to Michael Charry’s excellent “George Szell: A Life of Music.” This well-researched, modestly comprehensive volume is an eminently readable biography of a sometimes-controversial European conductor whose notable stint conducting the New York Metropolitan Opera led to a unique opportunity to transform a reasonably successful mid-western orchestra into one of the world’s top classical ensembles. 

Early life

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George Szell was born in Hungary in 1897 and was soon recognized as a child prodigy on the piano where, early on, he demonstrated a formidable talent on that instrument. Yet in spite of the start of an extraordinarily promising career as a concert soloist, Szell early on gravitated toward the more interesting possibilities of orchestral conducting. His extraordinary skills in this difficult arena led to a youthful stint with the Berlin’s Royal Court Opera orchestra (now the Berlin Staatsoper) where he developed a high level of expertise conducting the operas of Mozart as well as a compete “Ring Cycle.”

George Szell confers with the Cleveland Orchestra’s longtime concertmaster, Rafael Druian. Photo from the Szell website is undated but circa 1950s vintage.

As a Jew, however, Szell gradually ran recognized the threat to his professional and personal life during Hitler’s rise. Already accustomed to touring, he took advantage of his travels to decamp from Germany, first alighting in Western Europe, touring as far abroad as Australia, and eventually settling in the United States, finding a home for a time in New York City where he was hired to conduct the Metropolitan Opera, an incredibly competitive position to begin with.

Meanwhile, in Cleveland, Erich Leinsdorf—another esteemed Jewish conductor who’d escaped to the U.S. from Europe—began his short, strange tenure as music director and conductor of that orchestra, having also conducted at the Metropolitan Opera previously. Ironically, Leinsdorf, who’d been helped by none other than a then Congressional Representative from Texas named Lyndon Johnson to quickly become an American citizen, was actually drafted to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II. That simple fact, added to brewing issues regarding his conducting in Cleveland, led the orchestra to drop his contract after only three years, leaving the orchestra once again without a permanent leader. 

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Szell goes to Cleveland

This time, the Cleveland Orchestra board reached out to George Szell who surprised everyone by taking the post at the well-regarded but second-tier orchestra—seemingly a comedown from the glamorous Met. But the clever Szell only took the post with the stipulation that he be given absolute (read: dictatorial) control over the orchestra. And having once achieved that goal, proceeded to increase the size of the orchestra to compete with world-class ensembles, while at the same time sacking fully 22 members of the initially 94-member orchestra and replacing them with musicians he regarded as much higher caliber. 

Known as a cranky taskmaster who operated somewhat along the lines of the dictatorial Arturo Toscanini, Szell was never particularly loved by the Clevelanders. But, as the cliché goes, the proof is in the pudding, and in short order, Szell transformed the Cleveland Orchestra into a world class instrumental ensemble, astonishing many and winning plaudits and renown not only in Cleveland, but throughout the United States and the world.

In addition, by radically renovating Cleveland’s small, gemlike symphony performance space, Severance Hall, in the 1950s by walling up the symphonic organ in the rear with a monotone beige baffle-wall that extended around to both sides of the stage, he created such a phenomenal performance space that the orchestra actually used the hall itself as the recording studio for many of its popular recordings. 

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During the Szell era, which ended with his death due to complications from cancer in the early 1970s, the Cleveland Orchestra assumed legendary status throughout the world. Numerous critics, combining wit with truth, came to regard the Cleveland as the best “German” orchestra that ever existed. 

Szell’s rebuilding efforts shaped an ensemble with an unmistakable sound, distinguished in particular by the rich woodiness and depth of its string sections as well as well as the brilliant yet mellow flashiness of its brass section which never, ever seemed to make the kinds of mistakes and flubs that most orchestras encounter at least on occasion. 

The Szell brass sections proved particularly effective—and downright exciting—in full-blown late-Romantic German compositions, particularly the tone poems of one of Szell’s key mentor, composer Richard Strauss.

This then-9-year old writer’s first-ever symphony concert opened with a Szell-conducted performance of Strauss’ viscerally exciting tone-poem, “Don Juan,” which seemed, from the outset of its dashing, opening brass flourish, to levitate this young listener’s body several inches above the cushion of his plush Severance Hall seat.

Rock and roll—which dominates Cleveland’s downtown today with its fancy lakefront museum—was never an option after that, ruining this writer’s social life and eventually leading to his lengthy stint as a music critic for the Washington Times and other DC area publications over the years. 

While time tends to add an aura of unreality and romance to past memorable experiences, the excellence of the Cleveland Orchestra under Szell’s baton usually goes uncontested even among the most New York-centric critics.

Classical musicians are often high-strung, idiosyncratic, and occasionally obnoxious given the keenness of their musical intellects and their frequent discomfort in any other situation than the familiar concert or recital hall. The result is constant, low-level tension between orchestral players and their conductor-music directors as the players battle for their individuality vs. the conductor’s overall vision (or lack thereof) with regard to a given work. 

Szell—much like Toscanini, once his friend but later something of an adversary—was dictatorial and, to his detractors, downright tyrannical on the podium. He went out of his way to hire the most phenomenal musicians of his day, many of them already capable soloists. But then he was somehow able to bend them to his musical will, forcing their considerable talents to mind-meld with the whole.

Most of the musicians eventually ended up buying into the program, however, either due to outright fear of Szell’s wrath or—perhaps a surprise—due to the phenomenal results the ensemble got when it collectively fell in line, proved by consistent public and critical adulation not to mention the string of lucrative recording contracts that came their way under Szell’s tenure in an era when classical recordings still made good money for the record labels that supported them.

Schubert’s “Great” C major symphony

It was during this golden era that Szell’s Cleveland Orchestra made most of its collector’s item recordings, including a landmark recording of Schubert’s “Great” Symphony No. 9 in C major. This epic symphony was said to have been regarded as ridiculously difficult by musicians in Schubert’s time and even somewhat afterward, and it was never performed during his tragically short life.

One can imagine that the composer would have died a thousand deaths to have heard it performed by Szell and the Cleveland. As evidence, we offer the following YouTube video that features this symphony’s majestic, yet jolly, opening movement.

(George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra.
Recording: Cleveland, Ohio, November 1, 1957.
 Digitally Remastered by Bejun Mehta and Christopher Herles. 

From a Sony Classical CD, SBK 48268.)

Note the dramatic opening statement in Szell’s opening Andante. It’s Schubert’s proclamation that something important is about to happen. Taken a bit more slowly than it is in many performances, Szell’s grand opening bars are mesmerizing in and of themselves. The horns in the opening bars possess a haunting clarity and perfection.

Szell’s tempo choice is ultimately deployed to its maximum effect in the short, intense accelerando that leads to the main Allegro ma non troppo (roughly “fast but not too fast”) that dominates this movement and its vigorous, Jovian atmosphere. The slow intro gives Szell the opportunity to gradually build even more excitement into the accelerando, launching Schubert’s irresistible Allegro in grand fashion.

Szell, Beethoven, and Leon Fleisher, two-hands edition

Szell and the Cleveland famously recorded all of Beethoven’s nine symphonies. In addition, the orchestra’s phenomenal, near perfect set of Beethoven’s five piano concertos, all featuring a young, serious-minded, piano genius named Leon Fleisher. Both Beethoven collections have remained continuously available since they were first recorded: no mean feat in our current era in which classical music seems to have become an afterthought for current generations.

Listening to Fleisher and the Cleveland performing the Beethoven concertos is a moving and in many ways a touching experience today. For this is the same Leon Fleisher who eventually lost the use of his right hand, yet still was able to head up the piano department of Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory for many years. Mr. Fleisher still figured out a way to carry on as a performer, and his recordings of the left-handed repertoire have become legend.

More recently, to a limited degree, through a regimen that permits occasional use of his right hand, he’s begun recording two-handed piano discs once again. 

But many piano aficionados have never heard Mr. Fleisher in his prime. Here’s an unusual example of his artistry as he performs Rachmaninoff’s “Variations on a Theme of Paganini,” marvelously embellished by Szell’s Cleveland Orchestra. The sound of this recording (source of recording unknown), likely dating from the late 1950s or early 1960s is clear but rather tight and contained when compared to modern recordings, but the key details are all there in abundance, while classically understated.

While Mr. Fleisher in his early career was justifiably famous for his interpretations of Beethoven and Mozart, his performance of the Rachmaninoff in this recording shows another side to his artistry and also illustrates one of the major reasons why he and Szell proved so compatible.

In Szell’s version of the Schubert C major, as presented in our first video, we not only see how he is capable of building great power and excitement into a major masterpiece to the point where it sounds like something entirely new. We also get a glimpse into the seeming technical paradox of Szell’s approach.

In Szell’s heyday, solo and orchestral playing were dominated by late-Romantic style performers who often seemed more interested in aural and visual brilliance and audience-pleasing excitement than they were in precision. Hence, many a famed artist or conductor was almost as famous for his mannerisms as he was for his performance skills or conducting.

With regard to pianists of the era, Horowitz immediately comes to mind, with the flash and brilliance of his performances concealing inadvertent tone clusters and dropped notes galore. Meanwhile, flamboyant conductors like Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa excited the multitudes with visual displays of passion on the podium. However, while both were excellent conductors, none of the visual drama they projected had much to do, in the end, with orchestral output. It was either self-indulgent on their part or a simple lack of control.

Szell, in a way, was the first in a line of conductors who employed visual minimalism and economy into their conducting technique. On the podium, even as he created immense, dramatic orchestral architectures, Szell never moved around all that much, nodding his head occasionally while clearly indicating downbeats and phrasing with short, robotic, almost metronomic movements of the arms, wrists, and baton. He seemed like an automaton at times, and yet conjured up the kind of orchestral passion that more flamboyant conductors rarely achieved.

Perhaps more paradoxical, Szell shared with Mr. Fleisher a passion for classical, Mozartian precision in terms of both instrumental clarity and regularity of beat, perfect for Mozart and Beethoven, but seemingly out of place in the wilder forest places of the mid- and late-Romantic repertoire. But again, as we see in the Schubert and Rachmaninoff examples above, Szell’s—and Fleisher’s—classical restraint was ingeniously deployed in later repertoire to rein in solo and instrumental forces to the point where a mad scherzo or a triumphant concluding symphonic coda would erupt from its prior restraint to produce a sweeping, Romantic catharsis.

Szell as guru for young conductors

Although stories of Szell the Tyrant are legion, it’s often forgotten that he was an excellent teacher as well. In the 1966 Bell Telephone Hour video below, he tutors three young conductors—one of whom is the author of this book, while another, young James Levine, eventually scaled rarified conducting heights to become the longtime music director of the New York Metropolitan opera.

For those lacking the time to watch the entire video, the first 14 minutes or so will prove most instructive, as Szell dwells on the issue of precision and projecting a clear, effective downbeat.

(In this excerpt from a 1966 Bell Telephone Hour TV series, George Szell works with conductors Michael Charry, Stephen Foreman, and James Levine.

The Cleveland Orchestra, AS (After Szell)

After Szell’s passing, the Cleveland Orchestra proved surprisingly capable of maintaining its tradition of excellence. Frenchman Pierre Boulez was brought in for a couple of seasons to hold the orchestra together while its board tried to do the impossible and find a successor to Szell. Boulez himself was a contender, but his modernist tendencies put off the traditionalist board and they eventually turned to the then-young American conductor Lorin Maazel who led the orchestra for roughly a decade.

The musicians found Maazel colder, if anything, than Szell and perhaps even more aloof. Yet, surprisingly perhaps, he made marvelous music with his musicians, and several of their recordings together during those years, including still collectible recordings of works as diverse as “Porgy and Bess,” at least two Scriabin symphonies, and a prize-winning recording of the eminently popular “Carmina Burana” of Carl Orff.

Maazel departed from his players in the early 1980s to mutual ill will, although he later went on to win renown with a number of orchestras, concluding his career by keeping the always-irascible New York Philharmonic in fighting form. Now in his eighties, he seems to have mellowed a bit, and has become, perhaps surprisingly, a Virginia institution in a few short years, founding and launching the increasingly well-known summertime Castleton Festival near Warrenton in the depths of the Great Recession.

Maazel was followed by the long, successful tenure of Christoph von Dohnányi, who rigorously maintained the Szell tradition for some twenty years before retiring and passing the baton on to the orchestra’s current conductor, the highly capable yet controversial Franz Welser-Möst.

A recent hearing or two of the orchestra still finds them near if not still at the top of the musical firmament, although the brass seems to miss a step now and then, perhaps the result in part of unhappy musicians who find that the fiscal constraints of the Recession’s continuing negative effects upon arts funding is making a professional musical career today far less rewarding than it once was.

But in any event, we still have the gold standard of the Szell Era, a time and a place elegantly chronicled by Mr. Charry who was right in the thick of things in the latter part of those magical times as a young conductor.

The author treats Szell with restraint but not obsequiousness. Figures such as the great conductor are, after all, strange and wondrous one-offs, pure geniuses whose impatience with mere mortals both terrifies and inspires awe. Mr. Charry, helpfully, provides greater insight into Szell’s close circle of friends and musicians, revealing a warmer, more puckish side of his personality.

But in the end, controversy or not, we still have the Szell legacy which continues to live on in the Orchestra he defined as well as in those Boomer conductors and artists (such as the National Symphony Orchestra’s current music director Christoph Eschenbach) who benefited from his mentorship. In a way, this writer is a beneficiary of that legacy as well, as those youthful years spent attending Cleveland Orchestra concerts in the 1950s and 1960s provided a reliable and rigorous critical touchstone for evaluating the quality and artistry of musical performances even in 2013.

Even in its industrial decline, Cleveland has somehow managed to keep the 2013 edition of Szell’s orchestral masterpiece—and its legendary sound—nearly intact for decades. Reading Michael Charry’s excellent biography of this odd but mighty conductor will give readers some valuable and timely insights into exactly why this is true.

It’s a compelling story.

Michael Charry, “George Szell: A Life of Music.” University of Illinois Press: Champaign, Illinois, 2011. 412 pp. hb. $35.00. Available in a Kindle edition.

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  



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